With contributions from Cirencester Archaeological & Historical Society, members & friends
Joseph Howse (1774-1852)
Cirencester’s Fur Trader and Explorer
The July edition of Cirencester Scene featured a fascinating article about John Clinch, a Cirencester man who through his links with Edward Jenner took vaccination to Canada. This prompted me to re-read an article by my late father, F.J. Petrie for the CAHS Miscellany. His subject was another Cirencester man – Joseph Howse – whose life was to develop far from his native Cotswolds when he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1795.
Joseph Howse, orphaned at the age of four, was raised by his brother Thomas, a brazier whose shop stood next to the South Porch of the Parish Church. Little is known of Joseph’s education, but he was apprenticed to a Cirencester bookseller and stationer and claimed ‘some knowledge of Latin, French and Italian acquired before I left England’.
Visiting Cirencester in 1795 was Joseph Colen, Chief of the HBC’s York Factory – a remote trading post ‘with a partial view of a frozen sea’ on the shores of Hudson’s Bay in Canada. Incorporated by Royal Charter in 1670, the HBC was granted absolute rights over the beaver-rich hinterland which drained into Hudson’s Bay. Returning to Canada, Colen was accompanied by his teenage nephew Thomas, son of a Cirencester baker and Joseph Howse, aged 21.
Why Howse decided to leave Cirencester is not known. Maybe he wanted adventure and to better himself; perhaps Colen saw in Joseph Howse a bright, ambitious young man who could be recommended to the HBC as meriting future promotion. Howse spent two years at York Factory as a Writer; the lowest form of non-clerical employee, but by 1797 his diligence in learning the native language of the Cree Indians plus his general abilities and demeanour earned him two promotions. By 1799, he was in sole command of a trading post on the Prairies near the Saskatchewan River.
In early autumn, a Company frigate would arrive laden with goods, passengers, letters, and packages from England. The ship would then be loaded with rich winter furs and beaver pelts for the return journey, before the winter ice set in. Alongside this cargo were orders for goods to be sent from England the following year.
In 1799, Joseph Howse requested ‘6 yards of printed Cotton – lively pattern and 2 pairs of shoes – for a child of a year old’. This indicates he was in a settled relationship, most likely with the Cree woman who ‘assisted his understanding and learning of the language’, and they had a child. An HBC record of service mentions a son ‘by an Indian woman’ born in December 1798. The child was named Henry; his father was Joseph Howse (Englishman) and the mother, Mary (Indian).
Originally the Company banned such alliances, but soon realised that they helped to secure the goodwill of the indigenous peoples and these ‘marriages’ with a ‘country wife’ were not unusual. To the Company’s credit, it required its officers to make provisions for their women and children before leaving the service.
Joseph Howse continued his steady rise up the HBC ladder to Trader-in-Charge by 1803. His tenure was made more difficult by conflict between the HBC and the North West Company (NWC) founded in 1798 to challenge the HBC monopoly of the fur trade. Howse favoured peaceful competition but realised the Company needed to extend its influence westwards to the Rocky Mountains and beyond.
He led many expeditions between 1803 and 1813. Such journeys, on horseback or in large canoes, extended knowledge of new territories and turned Howse into an explorer, venturing into places ‘that European feet had never trod’.
By 1814, the rigours of exploration plus escalating violence between the HBC and NWC, and warfare among the indigenous tribes inflamed by the growth of settlements by dispossessed Highlanders, decided Howse to retire, returning to England in November 1815.
Back in Cirencester, Joseph Howse lived the life of a gentleman and scholar whilst involving himself in local affairs. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and with the support of the Church Missionary Society his Grammar of the Cree Language was published in 1844. He never married and in later years lived with family members in Dollar Street and then Dyer Street. He died in September 1852 aged 78 and, as he wished, was buried ‘with plainness and privacy at the ‘Ivy Church’, Ampney St Mary, among his forefathers.
Howse Pass, Howse River and Howse Peak are features of Banff National Park in Canada – each a lasting memorial to an extraordinary Cirencester man.
York Factory in Manitoba is a Parks Canada National Historic Site. See
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